As employees return to the office and acclimatise to new social distancing measures, the question of how staff breaks and downtime are managed has become particularly prescient.
Maintaining the distance between workstations, ensuring the office has adequate ventilation and introducing a one-way system are all relatively easy to implement. Once members of staff are seated at workstations, they are likely to remain there for some length of time. Even meetings can be carefully managed to ensure that physical distancing is maintained, and the risk of transmission is reduced.
One of the trickiest aspects of managing the socially distanced, so-called ‘new normal’ office environment is staff downtime. Morning and afternoon breaks, lunchtime and trips to the bathroom are much harder to regulate, and by doing so you begin to impinge on time that staff rightfully feel is their own. If staff are keeping distanced while they are working, there may be an understandable temptation to want to socialise and catch-up during their mandated downtime.
Breaks during the working day
Every employee has the right to an uninterrupted break of at least 20 minutes if they work more than 6 hours a day.
The employee has the right to take this break:
- away from their workstation
- at a time that’s not the very start, or the very end of the day
It’s entirely up to the employer whether they offer longer or extra breaks during the working day such as:
- a lunch hour
- refreshment breaks
Where are breaks taken?
How do people currently take their breaks? Is there a shared kitchen, breakout room, or downtime area? Are people currently congregating somewhere to talk?
Understanding how members of staff take their breaks is the first step in managing how to maintain social distancing whilst allowing some degree of socialisation.
Are shared facilities still appropriate?
Office kitchens could well become a thing of the past as workplaces adjust to social distancing. It may be possible to make use of shared facilities with the use of exacting hygiene, hand sanitisers, timetabled use and PPE, but this is likely to drastically reduce their appeal.
Employees should be encouraged to bring their own food and drink into work, including hot drinks, reducing the need for shared kitchen facilities.
Most workplaces already stagger lunch breaks, and with a reduced in-office workforce this is likely to be easier than it was in the past.
Taking breaks/lunch outside
Depending on where your office is situated, it may be possible for staff to take their breaks outside. If you’re near a public park and the weather is good, you’re likely to have few complaints from your staff. If you have green space nearby, this may be a way for small numbers of staff to continue enjoying valuable socialising time during their lunch breaks while maintaining social distancing.
During the winter months, and if your premises are located in the middle of an industrial estate, it may be harder to coax your staff outside. If employees travel to work in their cars, they could be encouraged to make use of them for breaks. Well ventilated rooms in the workplace, with strict timetabling and some basic hygiene standards adhered to, could be offered for people who don’t have an alternative.
Offer opportunities for people to get together
It might be possible by making use of masks, well-ventilated rooms, and a timetabling system to allow for some staff to get together during their downtime as long as social distancing is maintained. Alternatively, why not make use of shared pauses in the working day, where employees take breaks at their desk while perhaps engaging with each other using Zoom, but for non-work purposes.
The key issues in managing staff downtime are ones of space, movement, and supportive engagement. Thinking creatively about your premises, the surrounding area, how breaks are timetabled and how best to make use of technology can help to foster a healthy new set of rules for this unique challenge that we now face.